Brilliant and eccentric physicist Elwood Ralson has a unique problem. He’s convinced that humanity is being run through a bizarre experiment by some nearly-omnipotent aliens who are determined to prevent excessive intellectual or technological development on mankind’s part while still being interested in human intellects and technology. Whenever any human culture gets too far advanced, the aliens do something to bring it to an end.

And it’s driving Ralson to suicide—he, in particular, they want dead before he can help his colleagues develop a defense against the atomic bomb which may prevent the final end of human existence. In the end, however, he’s able to complete the theoretical background for such a device before the urge to commit suicide becomes overpowering.

This is an odd story, more psychologically driven than most by Asimov. He’s able to bring in his interest in history and provide a uniqe and interesting perspective on it, and the ending here leaves one wondering whether we are, in fact, being manipulated by extraterrestrials.

And yet, somehow, the story doesn’t quite work for me, and I'm not sure why. Perhaps some of the characters are a little too close to stereotypes such as the psychiatrist who treats Ralson or the government agent who keeps an eye on him. Perhaps it’s that a story about death and suicide is a bit too much of a downer for me. Perhaps there’s just a bit too much of early Cold War paranoia. I'm not sure. This is definitely a good story—but, alas, not an excellent one.

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